Small farmers face tough new rules

The Recorder
October 31, 2013
Richie Davis

With the deadline closing in for comments on proposed federal food safety rules that farmers and agricultural officials say could put many small family operations out of business, many groups are calling for a revised set of draft regulations.

Advocates of small-scale farming around the country are encouraging farmers and consumers alike to write to the Food and Drug Administration about what the groups say are nonsensical proposals that could actually make the nation’s food system less safe.

“For me, the most outrageous piece is that clearly the greatest risk, affecting the greatest number of people in the most serious way for the most number of incidents, has occurred in the national and global industrial food system,” said Philip Korman, executive director of Deerfield-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture. The FDA’s draft Food Safety Modernization Act regulations, Korman said, are ironic because “they would have the greatest impact on the segment of agriculture that many of us would want to see grow: small family farms.”

CISA has collected more than 200 signatures on its website calling for special provisions for small farms in the new rules, but the organization is encouraging letter-writing by farmers and consumers to the FDA. Along with several other groups — including the New England Farmers Union, the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition — CISA’s site describes the draft rules, for which the comment period ends Nov. 15.

NSAC warns that even with exemptions that promise to safeguard smaller farmers, the proposals would be expensive and unfairly burden those small-scale producers while reducing people’s access to fresh, healthy food. A “preventative controls rule” would bring heavy scrutiny to a wide array of low-risk processing and farm operations that bring in products from other farms, the group says.

The coalition, its member organizations and other groups are calling for a second revised draft to allow another chance for public comment before publication of the final rules, which they fear could be flawed.

“We are urging the FDA to put out a second set of proposed rules,” said Ariane Lotti, the coalition’s assistant policy director. “There are so many issues in the first ones that we don’t think they can go straight to a final rule. There are so many problems that need to be fixed, and these regulations will have such big impact, that we have to make sure the FDA gets these right and that they’re workable for farmers.”

The call for the FDA to take time to carefully regulate food safety won the endorsement of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in September, with state agricultural directors calling on Congress to allow a second draft.

Among the key problems various groups point to is a requirement that all farms weekly test the quality of surface water supplies, like rivers used for irrigation.

“Say you’re on the Deerfield River or the Connecticut River,” says Farm Bureau President Richard Bonnano. “the FDA is saying that water has to be tested by every grower, every seven days. Why should that be necessary?” Instead, he argues, the agency should allow water-quality testing that’s already being done by the state or municipalities, “instead of having thousands of growers doing it.”

Another key concern is a requirement that manure be spread on fields no less than nine months before harvest of crops that come into contact with the soil, instead of the four months allowed under U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards.

Bonnano, like Annette Higby of the New England Farmers Union, argues that there’s no sound scientific basis for the proposed nine-month rule, which could not be achieved given the region’s relatively short growing season.

“That will take fields entirely out of production,” said Higby, who added that because the threshold for exempting farms from the produce safety rule is $500,000 in annual gross sales, including animal feed as well as food for human consumption, the proposed rules would discourage diversified farming operations to plant vegetables.

“How many farms won’t go into produce? H ow many will put up their hands and say, ‘That’s just not a market I can get into’?” Higby says. “That’s not just a loss of farms. It’s also the growth of local and regional food production in New England that’s at stake.”

Jack Kittredge, president of NOFA-Mass., said, “We’re very concerned. Many of the provisions don’t make a lot of sense, and we’re urging them to withdraw the whole thing and come back with new proposed regs.”

The “preventative controls” proposal, dealing with how farm products are handled after they are harvested, is particularly confusing, said Bonnano.

“As you talk to people around the country, there’s a tremendous level of confusion not only about who will be impacted, but what exactly that impact will look like. As soon as a farmer is touching anybody else’s product, even if I’m shipping my neighbor’s zucchini that he’s already packed, it’s no longer a farm, it’s a mixed-use facility.”

Still, even without issuing a second set of draft rules, Bonnano said, the rules won’t take effect until 2016. And when that takes place, the FDA has already said there won’t be funding to enforce the new regulations.

That isn’t making anyone happier, as was obvious at an informational meeting in Hadley in August.

“We had the representative from FDA explain they won’t even have the funding to do enforcement so ‘Don’t worry too much,’” said Korman. “That was very upsetting, because people want to do the right thing. They don’t want to try to do it and then be waking up in the middle of the night anxious because they couldn’t afford to, or it didn’t make sense to because it didn’t improve food safety and it put farms at risk.”

He added that even though CISA is circulating a petition on the proposed rules, it’s far more effective to write directly to the FDA expressing the impact those regulations would have personally.

“We should be saying let’s improve safety every where and let’s not allow one more small family farm to go out of business,” Korman said. “These are not mutually exclusive.”

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